The Fortress REVIEW: Lee Byung-hun shines in this bleak period drama

The Fortress REVIEW: Lee Byung-hun shines in this bleak period drama

0 comments 📅25 October 2017, 12:46

Director: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Release: 19 October 2017 (London East Asia Film Festival)
From: CJ Entertainment
Format: Theatrical Release
Age Rating: TBC

As dawn breaks over the barracks of the fortress city of Namhansanseong, Minister for the Interior Choi Myung-kil (Lee Byung-hun) consorts with King Injo (Park Hae-il) as a group of angry officials watch on. With the threat of the Qing army looming over their heads, and a harsh winter already taking its toll on the patrolling guards, Choi hopes he can persuade the King to negotiate with the invaders, but Officer Kim Sang-hun (Kim Yun-seok) argues they should stand and fight. The fate of the country rests on the words of these two men, both desperately trying to convince their lord to follow their advice over the other’s — and so the scene is set for Hwang Dong-hyuk’s bleak period drama The Fortress.

Based on both real events and a novel by Kim Hoon, The Fortress retraces the steps of the doomed stand of Korea’s Joseon kingdom against the Qing dynasty, which had recently been established and demanded fealty from Joseon. The insurrection was first fought with words and then swords, even still the Joseon people decided to stand firm against the Qing army before being all but dragged out of their fortress. In Dong-hyuk’s retelling the Joseon officials bicker amongst themselves over everything, believing that any willingness to negotiate would just be seen as weakness. Choi believes that the way to peace is through compromise, but he’s scorned at every turn and it’s only when things go horrifically wrong that they start to listen.

It’s the ramifications of these political debates that is the focus of the film, and the result is a high-stakes game of persuade the king and appease the enemy that keeps the audience on their toes. But, because of their importance to the overall story, these interactions end up dominating the film and give very little time to fight scenes or other characters. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that a lot of time is dedicated to meetings and debates. Lee Byung-hun’s performance as Office Choi does help to keep things interesting as it’s through his raw emotions that he is able to present the character’s humility and desire for peace successfully. This is also a more humble role for him to take on, but he plays it with such veracity that it’s a joy to watch.

Given the story’s origins it shouldn’t be surprising that this is a markedly bleak period drama, everything that can go wrong does go wrong and because of this it’s difficult to know how to feel about the whole thing. It’s vexing how the noblemen are unable to see how their decisions are hurting their people, like Blacksmith Seo Nal-shwe (Ko Soo) whose life is torn apart by the war, and the consistent setbacks they face is hard to watch when you realise how many deaths could have been prevented had things gone a different way. Of course, with hindsight, anything seems possible, but this is still something worth noting. Despite this, Hwang Dong-hyuk has created an intense period drama that’s rife with political intrigue and powerful fight scenes, and this, combined with the excellent cast, makes The Fortress a stand out Korean production.

Review by Roxy Simons


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